Archive for December 4, 2019

Rouhani says some protesters should be freed, open to talks with US

December 4, 2019

Source: Rouhani says some protesters should be freed, open to talks with US | The Times of Israel

Iranian president says his country is still ready for talks if US lifts sanctions, which he claims were incited by Israel

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks at a public gathering in the city of Rafsanjan in Iran’s southwest Kerman province, November 11, 2019. (Office of the Iranian Presidency via AP)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday called for the release of any unarmed, innocent people detained during widespread protests over fuel prices, in which hundreds have been killed by authorities, and accused Israel of “inciting” sanctions that have crippled the country’s economy.

“Religious and Islamic clemency should be shown and those innocent people who protested against petrol price hikes and were not armed… should be released,” Rouhani said on state TV, according to the Reuters news agency.

He added that Iran was still ready for nuclear talks on condition the United States first lifts “unlawful” sanctions.

“If they are prepared to put aside the sanctions, we are ready to talk and negotiate, even at the level of heads of the 5+1 countries,” Rouhani said, in remarks aired live on state television.

Rouhani has long demanded the lifting of US sanctions for Iran’s return to talks under the auspices of the so-called P5+1 that reached a 2015 nuclear deal — the five veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.

A scorched gas station that was set ablaze by protesters during a demonstration against a rise in fuel prices in Eslamshahr, near the Iranian capital of Tehran, November 17, 2019. (AFP)

“We are under sanctions. This situation… is (because of) incitement by the Zionists and the region’s reactionary,” he said, referring to Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“This situation… is a cruel act by the White House. We have no choice but to resist and persevere against those imposers of sanctions.

“At the same time, we have not closed the window for negotiations,” Rouhani said.

“I tell the nation of Iran that any time America is prepared to lift and put aside its wrong, cruel, unlawful, incorrect, terrorist sanctions, immediately the heads of 5+1 can meet, and we have no problem.”

Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander Major General Hossein Salami speaks during a pro-government rally in the capital Tehran’s central Enghelab Square on November 25, 2019. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

Reuters quoted Hossein Salami, chief commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as saying in a televised speech that “the aim of our enemies was to endanger the existence of the Islamic Republic by igniting riots in Iran… But America and the Zionist regime lack political wisdom about Iran and Iranians.”

The landmark 2015 deal gave Iran relief from economic sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear program.

It has been at risk of falling apart since US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from it in May last year, and reimposed sanctions on Iran.

Known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it was agreed between Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States, plus Germany.

Twelve months on from the US pullout, Iran began reducing its commitments to the deal hoping to win concessions from those still party to the accord.

Its latest step back came last month, when engineers began feeding uranium hexafluoride gas into mothballed enrichment centrifuges at the underground Fordo plant south of Tehran.


US officials said to warn of potential new Iran threat to forces, interests

December 4, 2019

Source: US officials said to warn of potential new Iran threat to forces, interests | The Times of Israel

Defense, administration sources say CNN intelligence gathered over past month showed Iranian military units, weapons on the move; believe no decision to attack as yet

An Iranian woman looks at Taer-2 missile during a street exhibition by Iran's army and paramilitary Revolutionary Guard celebrating 'Defense Week' marking the 39th anniversary of the start of 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, at the Baharestan Square in Tehran, on September 26, 2019. (STRINGER/AFP)

An Iranian woman looks at Taer-2 missile during a street exhibition by Iran’s army and paramilitary Revolutionary Guard celebrating ‘Defense Week’ marking the 39th anniversary of the start of 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, at the Baharestan Square in Tehran, on September 26, 2019. (STRINGER/AFP)

Several US defense and administration officials have warned of a renewed Iranian threat against US forces and interests in the Middle East, based on intelligence gathered over the last month, according to a report Wednesday.

The intelligence found evidence that Iran has moved forces and weapons, according to the report, which did not specify what weapons were involved.

“There has been consistent intelligence in the last several weeks,” one official told the station, while another said the information was gathered throughout November.

The officials said there are concerns that the movements could put forces in position for a potential attack. However, the officials noted that there is no indication that Iran has made a decision to attack the US.

Without commenting on the recent intelligence, Pentagon spokeswoman Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich told CNN, “We continue to closely monitor the activities of the regime in Iran, its military and its proxies, and we are well postured to defend US forces and interests as needed.”

The report came amid a series of recent developments including bellicose statements from senior Iranian military figures threatening the US and Israel, an alleged Iranian missile attack on Israel launched from Syria, and a news report detailing how Iran allegedly ordered a damaging cruise missile and drone strike on a Saudi oil facility.

Last week, Iranian Gen. Allahnoor Noorollahi warned that Iran’s missile arsenals are aimed at 21 American military bases in the Middle East and the country is prepared for “the greatest war against the greatest enemy.”

In the November 29 speech, Noorollahi also said that Iran had the ability to raze Haifa and Tel Aviv to the ground.

Noorollahi serves as a top adviser to the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Officers College. His speech was broadcast on Bushehr TV, and was reported on and translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute.

Noorollahi’s comments came just days after the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s top commander, Gen. Hossein Salami, threatened to destroy Israel, the US and other countries, as he addressed a pro-government demonstration denouncing last month’s violent protests in Iran over a fuel price hike.

Chief of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Gen. Hossein Salami speaks in a ceremony to unveil new anti-US murals painted on the walls of former US embassy in Tehran, Iran, November 2, 2019. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Salami accused the US, Britain, Israel and Saudi Arabia of stoking the unrest.

“If you cross our red line, we will destroy you,” he said. “We will not leave any move unanswered.”

On November 19, Iran’s Quds Force, a branch of the Revolutionary Guards, fired four missiles at Israel from Syria, according to the Israel Defense Forces. All four were shot down, and Israel responded a day later with a punishing round of airstrikes against Iranian and Syrian targets.

At least 23 combatants were killed, 16 of them likely Iranians, according to a Syrian war monitor.

A devastating September 14 combined drone and cruise missile barrage on two Saudi facilities knocked out half of the kingdom’s oil production/

Although Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility, Israel, the US, Britain, France, Germany, and Saudi Arabia have accused Iran of being behind the attack. Tehran denies the allegation.

Last month, Reuters reported that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei personally approved the attack on condition the strike did not target civilians or Americans.

During a trip organized by the Saudi information ministry, workers fix the damage in Aramco’s oil separator at processing facility after the September 14 attack in Abqaiq, near Dammam in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province, September 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

In an interview published last month, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the head of the US military’s Central Command told the New York Times said that Iran remains on track to carry out a large-scale attack in the region.

“My judgment is that it is very possible they will attack again,” McKenzie assessed.

The lack of serious consequences to the attack on Saudi Arabia has led Israeli officials to warn an emboldened Tehran could seek a major attack on the Jewish state soon.

Israel has repeatedly said that it will not accept Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and that it will retaliate for any attack on the Jewish state from Syria.

Tensions have risen in the Persian Gulf since May last year when US President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the nuclear deal between major powers and Iran and began reimposing crippling sanctions in a campaign of “maximum pressure.”

They flared again this May when Iran began reducing its own commitments under the deal and the US deployed military assets to the region.

Since then, ships have also been attacked, drones downed, and oil tankers seized.


Iran is reeling from protests, Netanyahu says ahead of Pompeo meet in Portugal 

December 4, 2019

Source: Iran is reeling from protests, Netanyahu says ahead of Pompeo meet in Portugal | The Times of Israel

Prime minister urges more pressure on Tehran, admonishes Europeans for giving regime an out with INSTEX mechanism; Jordan Valley annexation and defense pact also on table in Lisbon

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for increased pressure on Iran and lambasted Europe for being soft on Tehran, as he headed to Portugal on Wednesday for a meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss the Islamic Republic and controversial West Bank annexation plans.

Speaking on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport before leaving for Lisbon, Netanyahu praised the US administration for putting “tremendous pressures and sanctions on Iran,” which he said was leading to instability that could cripple the ayatollah regime.

“We’re seeing the Iranian empire totter,” he said, citing protests in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, in which some demonstrators have expressed anger at Iran’s influence. “I think that it’s important to increase this pressure against Iranian aggression.”

At the center of Netanyahu’s two-day trip to Lisbon is a planned working dinner with Pompeo, a pro-Israel stalwart and key architect of Washington’s so-called maximum pressure campaign against Iran, which includes tough economic sanctions.

Iranian protesters gather around a fire during a demonstration against an increase in gasoline prices in the capital Tehran, on November 16, 2019. (AFP)

The prime minister is also slated to meet with Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa and Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva.

Speaking to reporters before taking off, Netanyahu said the conversation with Pompeo would “focus first of all on Iran, and two additional matters: the defense pact with the US that I seek to advance, and also a future American recognition of Israel applying sovereignty over the Jordan Valley. These are very important issues, we are dealing with them all the time. And there are also other issues, that I will not detail now.”

Talks are expected to revolve around the Iranian regime’s efforts to entrench itself militarily in Syria, as well as its increasing violations of the 2015 nuclear deal, including its recent decision to resume enrichment of uranium at the Fordo nuclear facility.

The prime minister also repeated his harsh criticism of European countries who recently joined the INSTEX financial mechanism, which is meant to allow Iran to continue to sell its oil despite the punishing US sanctions.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s sukkah, during talks with the prime minister on October 18, 2019. At left is US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. (Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)

“They should be ashamed of themselves,” Netanyahu said angrily. “While people are risking their lives and dying on the streets of Tehran, they’re giving sustenance and support to this tyrannical regime. The tyrants of Tehran should not be supported now; they should be pressured.”

Pompeo and Netanyahu last met in October in Jerusalem. According to reports, Netanyahu had originally planned to meet Pompeo in London, where world leaders, including US President Donald Trump are gathering for a NATO summit this week.

Netanyahu spoke with Trump over the phone on Sunday. According to the White House, the two discussed Iran and other unspecified bilateral issues.

Netanyahu later said that the proposed defense alliance and annexation of the Jordan Valley were discussed as well in the call, which he termed “a very important conversation for the security of Israel.”

“These are things that we could only dream about, but we have the possibility of implementing them,” he said.

A Palestinian shepherd herds his flock near the Israeli settlement of Argaman, in the Jordan Valley, a strip of West Bank land along the border with Jordan, December 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty/File)

On November 18, Pompeo appeared to pave the way for an Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley, and possibly other parts of the West Bank, when he declared that the administration would no longer consider Israeli settlements as necessarily illegal under international law.

“We think the decision that was made that permits the possibility of legal settlements, that they are not illegal per se, is both the correct one and the one that is in the best interest of the security situation in Israel, as well as the situation between Israel and the Palestinian people,” Pompeo told the Israel Hayom newspaper last week.

Normalization drive

After leaving Portugal, Pompeo is slated to travel to Morocco, where he is expected to push normalization with Israel with King Mohammed IV in Rabat.

“Morocco plays a great role across the region as an important partner in promoting tolerance (and) has these quiet ties and relationship with Israel as well,” a State Department official said last week.

Morocco is one of several Arab states in the Middle East being pushed by the US to sign non-belligerence agreements with Israel, as a step toward normalizing relations with the Jewish state, according to a Tuesday report by Axios.

The trip marks the first visit to Portugal of an Israeli prime minister since 2000, when Ehud Barak went to Lisbon to meet then-US president Bill Clinton.

Netanyahu himself last traveled to Lisbon in December 1996, during his first term as prime minister, when he attended a European Council for Security and Cooperation summit there.

On Tuesday, the top US diplomat made headlines for an entirely different matter, as reports emerged claiming he started preparing for a possible run for an open Senate seat in Kansas next year.

Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.